Anita Berber

Anita Berber was born in Dresden on June 10th 1899 to Felix and Lucie Berber. Felix was First Violinist with the Municipal Orchestra and Lucie, an aspiring actress and singer.

She was raised, mostly, by her grandmother in her early years and then exclusively so after her parents divorced in 1901 and, four years later, her mother left for Berlin and Rudolph Nelson’s Chat Noir cabaret stage.

At the age of 10 she was enrolled at the Jacque-Dalcroze Institute in Hellerau and thrived on its’ strict regime of physical training and Eurythmics. At 14, she re-joined her mother, now in Weimar, and studied French and Confectionary at an expensive girls’ boarding school. This was rapidly curtailed by the outbreak of the First World War that summer.

In 1915, both Anita and her mother moved to an apartment in Zähringer Strasse in Berlin’s Wilmersdorf district . Anita enrolled in acting classes and was spotted by the Avant-garde choreographer Rita Sacchetto. She made her debut with the dance-troupe in February 1916, alongside the young performance artist Valeska Gert.

Through 1916/17, Anita’s star was rising and she not only toured throughout Germany and Austria with the Sacchetto Troupe but also performed solo at the Berlin Wintergarten and was featured twice on the front cover of glossy women’s magazine Die Dame. By 1918 she had made her first of nine silent films, was becoming a sought-after model and was touring her own solo programme.

(image: Atelier Alex Binder)

( Die Dame magazine 1917)

(Die Dame magazine 1918)

It was during an after-show party at a Vienna hotel, that a drunken Anita Berber danced naked in public for the first time.

In January of 1919, Anita married the wealthy young screenwriter Eberhard von Nathusius. Her film career was blossoming and  in the spring of that year she appeared, alongside rising-star Conrad Veidt, as Else in the ground-breaking Richard Oswald film ‘Different From The Others” (Anders als die Anderen).

Meanwhile her personal life had begun spiralling out of control with tales of lesbian affairs and S&M sex emerging from her tour to Vienna and reaching the daily newspapers of Berlin.

Back in Berlin in the winter of 1919, Anita occupied a suite at the Adlon Hotel, spent wildly on furs, shoes and jewellery and indulged heavily in cocaine, cognac and all-manner of illicit narcotics smuggled from around Europe. She would spend her nights touring the hotels and elegant restaurants of the city, wearing nothing but a sable coat, and with her pet monkey around her neck along with an antique brooch packed full of cocaine.

Her cabaret career was flourishing alongside her growing reputation, and she was performing regularly at Max Rheinhardt’s literary “Schall und Rauch” stage, but her film career was not so stellar as her behaviour and addictions were making her a liability to work with.

By 1921 her sham marriage had collapsed completely, Von Nathusius divorced her and she dated a string of beautiful women, including, allegedly, the young Marlene Dietrich. But it was stylish bar-owner Susi Wanowski who won her heart and very quickly became her lover, manager and secretary.

Cabaret and film appearances continued unabated: in Rudolph Nelson’s revue ‘Bitte Zahlen” (Please Pay); in Fritz Lang’s film “Mabuse” and midnight shows at the tiny Weisse Maus cabaret in Friedrichstrasse.

(“Bitte Zahlen” 1921 image: Ernst Schneider)

In June 1922, Anita met the dancer and poet Sebastian Droste during a particularly wild night out at a Berlin casino. It was to be a life-changing encounter.

Anita and Sebastian were immediately drawn to one another and convinced they could create something bold, new and shocking.

Rehearsals began immediately with a fervour only matched by the pairs’ cocaine consumption.  Very quickly Droste had replaced Susi as Anita’s manager and, by July of 1922, a series of performances of their new production “The Dances Of Depravity, Horror and Esctasy” had been booked for Vienna in November.

(image: Atelier D’ora)

The next few months were filled with incident. Five weeks into rehearsals, the schedule and drug consumption took its’ toll and Anita checked into a Vienna Sanitorium. At the beginning of October her latest film with Richard Oswald “Lucrezia Borgia” was released to huge acclaim and a whistle-stop two week warm-up tour took her and Sebastian to Italy, Spain and France before their grand production opened in Vienna on November 14th.

(image: Atelier D’ora)

Drostes less-than honest dealings with theatre promoters and the huge depts they had both run up were soon to cause them huge problems. Multiple bookings of ‘exclusive’ performances and several breaches of contracts with promoters soon got them both expelled from the International Artists Union and no variety stage in Europe, Britain or Turkey could book them for the next two years. By the end of the year, Anita had violated the ban several times, been arrested for assault and theft, and was expelled from Vienna.

(image: Atelier Eberth)

In January 1923 Anita and Sebastian were married.

The IAU ban severely restricted their work, and so in March 1923 they undertook a five-month nightclub tour of Italy and Yugoslavia. They returned to Berlin in September but their relationship had reached a low and both were now hopelessly dependant on Cocaine. A month later, Sebastian stole Anita’s furs and jewellery, sold them and fled to New York.

By early 1924, a rested and rejuvenated Anita was back living at Zähringer Strasse with her mother and ready to work again.  In August, she attend a performance by  the American dancer Henri Chatin-Hoffman at Berlin’s Blüthne-Saal, fell instantly in love with him and they were married two weeks later.

Although working regularly at the Rampe, Schall und Rauch, and Cafe Grössenwahn, Anita and Henri premiered their first collaboration “Shipwrecked”  in Stuttgart in April 1925.

In October the duo began a nationwide tour of their production and it was whilst they were in Düsseldorf that the artist Otto Dix painted his, now iconic, portrait ‘The Dancer Anita Berber’

In June 1926, Anita and Henri were  on tour with their new production “Dances of Sex and Ecstasy”. Whilst in Zagreb, Anita publicly insulted the King of Yugoslavia and was imprisoned for six weeks. Back in Berlin, both Anita and Henri were now broke and Anita returned to the cabaret circuit.

(image: Atelier Alex Binder)

Friends urged them to come to the Netherlands to perform in a new revue which opened that October and lead to them both undertaking a considerable tour, keeping them away from Berlin for nearly the next two years. A Middle Eastern tour began in Athens and took them to Cairo, Beirut and Damascus where Henri pleaded with Anita to give up drinking.

On the night of July 13th 1928, Anita collapsed whilst performing at a Beirut nightclub, and was diagnosed with an advanced state of pulmonary tuberculosis. She desperately wanted to go home.

The journey home took four months, with Anita needing time to recuperate at each stage. Their money had been swallowed by the costs of transport, and in Berlin collections were being made backstage at cabaret venues to fund the last stages of the journey.  Finally arriving in Berlin from Prague, Anita was taken straight to the Bethanien Hospital in Kreuzberg.

Four months later, on November 10th 1928, she died and was buried in a paupers grave at St. Thomas Friedhof in Neuköln.

She was 29. The graveyard is now disused and her grave, gone.

Mel Gordons’s compelling biography “The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber” is available from the ‘Books And More’ section of this site, under the ‘biographies’ heading.

On 4th November 2011, William Thirteen kindly posted:

“actually the cemetery is still there and still being used. Unfortunately there is no sign of Berber’s grave – the location can be narrowed down to a relatively small area in Section 2, Row 21″

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10 Responses to Anita Berber

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Anita Berber « Cabaret Berlin --

  2. Chris Girard says:

    I have recently seen Anita Berber’s brief performance in Fritz Lang’s “Dr Mabuse: The Gambler”. The expressive movement is timeless and haunting.

    Chris Girard 01/19/2012

  3. pats says:

    I became aware of Anita while watching a documentary about weimar germany and the cabaret scene. All I can say is that Madonna and Lady GaGa owe her a lot, she was truly the original.

  4. Gemma says:

    This is brilliant, I was wondering if anyone had anymore information on Susi Wanowski? I am doing a research project at school and I’m having difficulty finding information about the managment of cabaret at this time. If anyone has any information it would be greatly appreciated!!!

  5. Hi Brenden,

    I hope you wont mind my blatent piece of self promotion, but readers of your Berber piece may be interested to know that I have just published the first full translation (by Merrill Cole) of ‘Dances of Vice, Horror, and Ecstasy’in a small edition of 300 numbered h/b copies.

    It includes the wonderful D’Ora images which, where I can find them, I have licensed form various collections, and these have all be restored to make them look their best.

    There are also a few extra bits and pieces – an into by Cole, and essay by Mel Gordon (Berbers biographer) and a few other D’Ora images (one hand mounted on the cover).

    The website is:

    I have also added my own essay on Berber/Droste/ the book etc here:

    If you would care to mention it somewhere I would be terribly grateful.

    Thanks so much!

    John N. Smith

  6. The Deutsche Post actually used the Otto Dix painting of Anita on one of its stamps in 1991.

  7. Pingback: Seven women | Let's Fold Scarves

  8. Today I went to her grave as mentioned above! Here’s a link to the photos I took!

  9. Richie Moore says:

    Thanks Brenden for this fascinating slice of one of the original “live fast-die young” performers of the 20th Century. Anita almost seems to epitomise the Decadent Weimar Era with her daring performances, fluidity of sexual identity and drug and alcohol use.
    I had heard of her and seen the Dix portrait before but I was unaware that she had died quite so young. I was curious to discover how she fared with Hitler’s rise to power but now I see that she didn’t live to see it.
    RIP Anita.

  10. Christopher Canaan says:

    Were Anita Berber and Marlene Dietrich ever lovers.

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